Archive | motherhood

My Television Dukkha (Suffering)

Sometimes I look at my children, and it seems to me they lead very strange lives. They go to school for most of every weekday, leaving home at 7:30am and returning only around 4pm — almost the equivalent of a full-time adult job. Once at home, they need to manage their time between after-school activities, such as basketball and football practice or gymnastics, and their homework, which could take as much as an hour-and-a-half every day. After the homework is complete, oftentimes the kids elect to sit in front of the television, the xBox or their iPads, staring at the screens for hours at a time.

Here’s what my and my sister’s life at their age looked like:

We had school from 8am to 2pm at the longest, often coming home at noon. We had homework, and I sure read a lot, but I spent a lot of time outside, in our garden or the street, playing. I also played the piano. My sister went to jazz and aerobics classes and took karate lessons. But we often played with friends. There was only one channel on television in Israel. For some two hours each afternoon the programming was only in Arabic, and in the evening, it was more for adults. And so, though we watched some television, our life was not focused on it, except perhaps somewhat during summer vacations, when there was more programming oriented to our age. But even then we spent most of the day playing with friends outside, reading (me), or going to the beach and the pool. We did not have a computer till I was in my teens, and even then, games were limited and the internet not invented yet. Our lives were focused on friends and on being outside, and, for me, on books.

When I look at my kids, I wonder what this indoor, screen-oriented life would look like when they’re adults. I worry that they are self-numbing. That they don’t really know what to do with their time other than this digital easy choice. The fear that as a parent I ought to control this better seizes me, and I feel desperate and hopeless at the same time. Somehow, whenever I talk to other parents, they don’t have this problem at all. “We hardly watch television,” one mother told me the other day. “She’s too busy with soccer practice,” said another.

Once school is done for the day, most kids around here head to sports practices, music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and many other after-school activities. Their time is so tightly scheduled that it is impossible to make plans for playdates during the week, and even the weekend is often tough. While admittedly riding horses or playing soccer does sound much better in every way (healthier, more educational, morally more correct perhaps) than watching television, I wonder sometimes if all these activities are simply another symptom of our non-stop society that is so afraid to pause for a moment and get bored.

This morning, I went to meditation practice at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I was tired, and my head kept whip-lashing as I fell asleep and woke up sitting on the pillow. I had looked forward to coming, eager for a half hour of uninterrupted quiet, a half hour of not needing to talk, not needing to do anything, a half hour of simply being in the moment, even if that moment was full of sleepiness. After the meditation, Robert Cusick spoke about the Eightfold Path and how to end suffering (dukkha in Pali). As he spoke, my listlessness transformed itself into a panic about this television issue. I was ruining the kids’ lives. I was not doing my duty by them. What kind of a parent was I? The image of my daughter staring at the television last night came to my mind, and my chest filled with such tightness, such desperation, such helplessness, that I wanted to jump out of my seat, to do anything except experience that.

In my mind, action was paramount. I was going to go back home and sit the kids down for a talk. No more television. Ever. Not on weekdays at least. I was going to talk to Dar about not getting Uri the Playstation he wanted for his birthday. That’s it. No more. I was done with screen time. I was going to be better this time. I’ll make them check-in their iPads in the kitchen. I would be on top of making sure the TV was always turned off. No computer for me either. Possibly not even for Dar. I will let them be bored. It’s better than this digitalization of our life. We’ll go to the pool instead, or I could schedule them some music lessons again. We will be a screen-free home. In my frenzy, I was no longer at the meditation hall. Instead, I was fighting the kids, fighting, in a way, against this awful sin it seemed to me that I was committing against their life.

Fortunately, Robert Cusick’s words interrupted my self-torture, bringing me back to the hall. He was telling a story about something that happened in a class he taught the other day. The class began, he said, with a guided meditation. As everyone was sitting, and he was already guiding them in the meditation, late-comers trickled in. The door opened and closed. Chairs creaked and scraped. Bags thumped down on the floor. Sound was happening, but he noticed some of the meditators were opening their eyes, glancing back. In our heads, he explained, a simple noise transforms into stories: who is coming? why are they late? don’t they know the class started already? don’t they know they’re interrupting the meditation? But it was just sound that was happening. Only sound. Nothing else. The rest were stories that were going on in people’s heads.

As Robert Cusick spoke, I suddenly understood. What was happening for me, thinking about the digital usage at home, was fear — fear that I am not a good enough mother. The rest was just stories that I was telling myself that I thought could happen in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. The need I felt to act, like the need the meditators felt to see who was coming, was a reaction to the fear, but there was no real, urgent need for me to act. If I acted now, I’d be acting from that fear and ignorance, from a place of heaviness and helplessness and despair. Instead, I can do what I’ve heard people talk about countless times in meditation: I can simply be with this fear. I can hold this fear and myself with compassion. I can experience it and see that it is just a fear, even if it does seem to me such a terrible, scary fear. And let go of the need to react.

Perhaps, once I’ve learned to hold my fear (this fear of not being a good enough mother) with compassion, I will be more capable of acting wisely with regards to the television/ipad/xbox situation at home. Right now, I realize I cannot. Right now, any action I take will not really be an action, but a REaction, and as such will probably go the way my resolutions regarding the TV had gone before: to guilt and more helplessness and fear. I have a long way to go in learning to hold this fear. It’s a big one for me. And so, for today at least, I’m not going to do anything except be kind to myself about it as much as I can. I’m going to trust that the sense of urgency I feel is a passing sensation. That this situation (which is largely in my imagination anyways) is not critical. That I cannot build or destroy anything in one day, and that the kids, god willing, will not be quite as irretrievably ruined as I fear by another digital day.

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Hurray! It’s Summer!

Every year, as the last daSeay of school approaches, I find my excitement level rise. Finally, we won’t have to wake up early in the morning to go to school. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids. We can travel, have fun, relax. The kids dislike going to camp, but that’s all right with me. Hurray, I cheer, more uninterrupted, unscheduled, un-rushed time.

“I’m bored,” my son announces not five hours after we leave the school grounds. “Only seventy five more days till seventh grade.” He sighs with great drama. “I hate summer,” he announces, and as an explanation he adds: “It’s hot.”

Summer is hot. If it were not hot, I, at least, would complain. I love the longer days, the yellow sun shining in the blue, blue sky. I love the smell of sunscreen on people. For me, summer is that long ago time of my childhood, when we went to the beach and hang out in the water for hours, letting the waves carry us up and down. It’s that magical moment when the pool in the nearby kibbutz just opened, and I’d cut into the water first, like a dolphin, watching the ripples breaking the serene surface.

For my kids, summer sure is different. They do not live, like I did, within a ten minute walk from all their friends. The beach is forty-minutes away, and it is not the kindly, warm waters of the Mediterranean that await us there. My parents have a pool in their yard, but without their friends (who spend most of each day at camp), that is sometimes not an attractive option as well.

How can I make summer entertaining for the kids? How can I get them to leave the easy choice of television, computer, or Wii and have a summer the way I think a summer should be?

It turns out that getting the kids to have the summer of my childhood is possible, with a lot of (guess what?) hard work, preplanning and expense on my side. The opportunities around here, after all, are endless: picking strawberries in Watsonville, Great America, San Francisco Zoo, Saba and Safta’s pool, the pool at the JCC, hiking with friends, a camping trip to Point Reyes, San Diego for a week (there’s no lack of what to do over there), a picnic with friends, kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, paddleboarding at Shoreline, a movie or two. And more… so much more.

Would you be surprised if I told you that by the time mid-August rolls around, I am exhausted and longing for school to start?

We live in a strange world, full of exciting opportunities, yet I find myself longing for that somewhat simpler world in which I grew up. I long for our family moments on the Mediterranean shore, for a pool that has no slides coming in and out, for playing outside in the dirt with my friends, riding the bike to the park, or going exploring in the orange orchard next door. But the world is different now, and there’s no use living in the past. And perhaps it’s not that bad to be bored sometimes, or to watch too much television, or work a little harder in order to get together with a friend. After all, it is summer, and whether we work hard or not, we do it for fun.

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The Price of Passion

Uri’s main competition for my love.

Writers often claim that they write because they must. Why else would we write? Riches and fame, after all, are rarely the results. I have struggled with the inexplicable need to write for at least ten years, writing in bursts and sinking into doom and gloom when no writing comes. Having noticed the connection between not writing and my bouts of depression, I’ve made an effort to get some writing time every day. I channel my creativity into the blog when the novel seems too complicated an endeavor, and I’ve come to realize that the feeling I called depression was actually frustration in disguise.

Realizing how important writing is to me was only one tiny step. Ahead loomed a greater obstacle, so great, in fact, that terrified and ashamed, for a long time I preferred not to look it in the face. Even now, it seems to me both a ridiculous and crucial obstacle: my all-important mother-hood. Turns out that after all these years, I still doubt that I can be a mother and a writer at the same time.

My imagination, my creativity press on the dam of fears I’d built, lashing against it, trying to force a way out. When I write, I often don’t hear the children talking to me. I forget to tell them to go to sleep or to make them food. What will happen if I let all the passion of writing out from behind the carefully controlled dam? What if writing and novels and ideas will come rushing out in a great flood, overcoming everything? Will the mother mountain stay intact?

Yesterday my son accused me, “You love your book more than you love me.” I burst out laughing. I spend so much energy on being afraid that the kids will suffer because of my writing, and here he is blaming me for exactly what I fear the most. Except, he wasn’t talking about my novel, the one I am writing. He was talking about the ultra fascinating and unputdownable Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore.

Okay, so I admit that yesterday I was reading Bitterblue instead of playing with him lacrosse. And I was reading Bitterblue instead of paying him attention. And I was reading Bitterblue in the doctor’s office while we waited though he had nothing to do. But in one moment, with those funny and yet truthful words, Uri gave me glimpse of perspective about my great parenting-writing fear. Just a glimpse, mind you.

I have a feeling that if I let the dam loose the mother mountain will still stand safe and sure. I have a feeling that if I stop putting on the break with my writing, I will have more energy to spend both on my writing and the kids. And I have a feeling that it’s good for the kids to know that there’s more to their mother than just being a mother. It’s just a feeling. But I think perhaps it’s true.

Do you have a passion in your life, that makes you oblivious to the rest of the world?

Patience Is a Virtue, or Is It?

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines patience as “A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” I support this definition wholeheartedly. I am not a patient woman. I like quick results, instant gratification, swift changes. If something does not work, I turn around and try to find a solution. I do not wait, pause, rethink, reflect. I act.

Patience and I do not get along very well. All too often when I try to be patient, I end up blowing up. “Beware the fury of a patient man,” said John Dryden. I say: beware the misery of an impatient woman. I want everything and everyone around me to be perfectly well, perfectly happy, perfectly safe all the time.

Some projects, like child raising, last a life time. Parenting, as Dar reminded me today, is best done day by day, drop by drop. I’ve been dabbling at motherhood for eleven years now, but I’m quick to despair. I throw up my hands and proclaim myself a failure. Dar had more faith: “No failure can be fairly established until the job is done,” he explained. I am well aware that being a mother will only be done, quite possibly, when I’m dead and gone.

A pessimistic thought? Actually, I feel relief. I hope many more years are before me, allowing me to try and get it right: to pour just a little more love into the children’s hearts, to give more lift to their wings, more confidence to their bearings, more food into their growing tummies and minds. “Don’t try to rotate them in the right direction,” Dar told me. “Steer them little by little. Fly with them so they can fly.”

I asked Dar: what if I am myself too confused? What if I lack confidence in my own flight capabilities? How can I teach the children to fly when I am not proficient? I don’t know how to teach them to fly because I don’t know how to fly myself! And I threw up my hands once again. Failure! Despair! Hopelessness!

Patience. That’s how. Day by day, drop by drop, little by little. I suppose acceptance is important too. Sometimes a day might include only the putting out of fires as they arise. Often a day will require watering the little seedling hearts of the children with a lot of love. Sometimes they might ask me for the moon, and other times I might discover that the moon is as simple an object as a coin the size of their nail, like in the story with the princess from my blog the other day.

I don’t have a detailed mothering plan. I think even if I did, I’d find myself moving away from it almost instantly. But I do have overarching goals: to love the children, give them as much support as I can, have patience with the process, and give myself room to feel hopelessness and despair if I feel I must.

This is where I found the quotes on patience.

Teachable Moments

Sometimes when I write, I am right there with my characters, acting as a scribe to their actions and words. Tonight I found myself in the kitchen at Snow Mansion, watching Anna Mara and Calypso Maximilian having breakfast. Five hundred words later, screams erupted in the bathroom here in the real world, invading my groove. Though reluctant, I left Calypso and Anna Mara mid-sentence and went to see what caused the shouting.

Eden burst out of the bathroom, holding her arm. Tears running down her face, she fell into my arms. Uri stood by the sink brushing his teeth. I hugged Eden for a moment, then asked what happened. They both spoke at once. “He pinched me.” “She kicked me.”

Ah! A teachable moment. One of those moments when total and utter clarity befriends me, when I know exactly what to say and do in order to make all right in the world. Right? Wrong. This is a time when I am beset by total helplessness. “She hit me!” “He bit me!” “She kicked me!” “He said I was stupid!” “She said she’d let the hamsters loose!” “He told me I can’t come in his room!” The accusations flow, and who is to make heads or tails out of it? And who do I talk to first, him or her? Who’s more to blame?

Ah, the joys of motherhood! And me? I’m an elephant in a crystal shop kind of parent (I am translating this expression from the Hebrew, so excuse me if it sounds strange). I want to leave the kids with self confidence, a feeling of accountability and responsibility, and the inner-appreciation that comes from knowing that they did the right thing. Instead, I think I leave them feeling confused (because I talk too much), hurt (because they think I didn’t listen to them or consider their side enough), and mistreated (because of course justice should have been theirs).

I’d like to think that every time such an emergency arises, I am closer to handling it in the way I aspire to, with patience, level-headedness, and the right words. I think today I screamed less than in the past. I tried to explain to them about taking responsibility for their own actions. But I was far from perfect and still screamed too much.

I learn a lot from being Uri’s and Eden’s mother. They give me daily opportunities to grow closer to my better self. They provide me with the chance to be at peace with myself, learn patience, and think before I talk. I think I’m not a terrible student, but I’m definitely not getting many As. If there’s one thing I’d like to take from today, it is to view these moments with more joy and less frustration. They truly are opportunities for growth. And maybe if I concentrated on what I could learn rather than my success in teaching the children, I’d be happier with the end results as well.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109